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The moral grammar of Chinese transnational one-child families: Filial piety and middle-class migration between China and the United Kingdom

Tu Mengwei and Daniel Nehring

Abstract

This essay investigates the experiences and practices of transnational mobility among Chinese middle-class people. It examines the extent and manner in which such mobility is related to shifts in the socio-cultural organization of Chinese intergenerational family relationships. In doing so, it develops the concept of moral grammar to draw attention to the culturally situated negotiation of norms, values and beliefs pertaining to family life, and highlights the ways in which such normative systems may be transformed in the context of families’ changing structural situation. The essay’s argument is grounded in a qualitative case study, involving 40 in-depth interviews with young Chinese middle-class professionals in the UK and their parents in China. Participants in the UK were between 22 and 38 years old and had originally moved to the country to pursue higher studies at British universities. The parents who were interviewed were between 51 and 68 and employed in white-collar jobs. Most of them had not yet reached retirement age. The evidence from these interviews indicate the persistence of filial piety as a shared frame of reference to make sense of parent-child relationships. At the same time, they point to complex modulations of understandings of reciprocal support and care, to account for the transnational extension of family life.

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